The opening night of the play King Charles III came with all the trappings of British pageantry. Ceremonial sentries stood guard at the theatre doors, their tunics as red as the carpet paraded on by celebrities and VIPs, and their bearskins as furry as the outfits of the Sesame Street characters posing for selfies with tourists in Times Square just a few yards away.
Broadway is currently enjoying a special relationship with the British monarchy, and the presence of those faux guards suggested that the House of Windsor, or at least its theatrical mimics, has taken up residence in New York.
King Charles III, a future history play written by Mike Bartlett, has opened to admiring reviews. “Flat-out brilliant” was the verdict of The New York Times. Delivered in neo-Shakespearian blank verse, with the characters conversing in iambic pentameter, the play imagines the ascension to the throne of Prince Charles, played brilliantly by Tim Pigott-Smith, and the constitutional crisis that erupts following his refusal to grant royal assent to new legislation curbing the excesses of the British press.
Quote: The House of Windsor has taken up residence in New York
The play brings together a familiar cast of characters, but gives them Shakespearian personality traits. Prince William, played by his doppelganger Oliver Chris, starts as a conciliatory figure before assuming a more confrontational and conspiratorial role. Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge (Lydia Wilson), is a scheming Lady Macbeth. The wayward, flame-haired Harry (Richard Goulding) is a modern-day Prince Hal. Princess Diana appears as a ghost, telling both her former husband and eldest son that they will be “the greatest king of all".
For Charles, meanwhile, the crisis is not just constitutional but personal and spiritual: should a monarch follow conscience or convention, and should democracy impinge on the divine rights of kings? Ultimately deciding that he is the true representative of the British people, King Charles opts for monarchical overreach, dramatically disbanding parliament rather than see the House of Commons pass new laws curbing his prerogatives.
Perhaps some New York theatregoers will see in the play validation of their forebears’ decision 239 years ago to reject the monarchy and declare America independent. But sitting in the stalls on opening night, I failed to detect any great sense of historical satisfaction at having rid the United States of the royals. Rather, as is more usual when watching Americans watching the Windsors, I was struck by their wonder at the magic of the monarchy and the awe in which this medieval institution continues to be held in the country that’s the home of modernity.
Quote: I was struck by the awe in which this medieval institution continues to be held
Fame of thrones
Certainly, the monarchy has rarely been more popular on Broadway. Peter Morgan’s The Audience, in which Helen Mirren reprised her cinematic role as Queen Elizabeth II, enjoyed an award-winning run earlier this year and earned its star a Tony. Wolf Hall Parts One and Two, a theatrical rendering of Hilary Mantel’s Booker-prize winning novel on the Tudors, chalked up another critical success for a royal play. Even the Metropolitan Opera has mounted a Tudor Trilogy by staging three “Queen operas” – Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux.
Theatrically speaking, the appeal of the royals is obvious. For as long as kings and queens have occupied their thrones, they have generated epic storylines. Royal families come with an almost inexhaustible backstory reaching back centuries. History combines both tragedy and comedy. Palace gossip can make for side-splitting farce.
Quote: Palace gossip can make for side-splitting farce
Paradoxically, there’s also something democratic about these dramas of hereditary privilege, because they can take so many forms and thus appeal simultaneously to so many different demographics. The British monarchy makes for highbrow neo-Shakespeare, as well as being the inspiration for populist pap like E! channel’s The Royals, starring Liz Hurley as a fictional Queen Helena.
Everyone loves a good family saga, whether it involves the Corleones, the Waltons or the Windsors. The success of Game of Thrones reminds us how the crown raises the dramatic stakes. As Tim Sykes, who runs The Royalist blog at The Daily Beast, has observed, the royals are authors of a “super-narrative” taking in “all the best elements of a reality show, a fairytale and a historical novel in one ultra-famous family.” Like a blue-blood version of The Kardashians, they have the same mass market appeal.
Quote: Everyone loves a good family saga whether it’s the Corleones or the Windsors
Though current if judged by royal timeframes, this can hardly be described as a new phenomenon. The past three decades have witnessed a marrying of British regal culture with American celebrity culture, a union crystallised when Princess Diana went for a twirl around a dance floor at the White House with John Travolta 30 years ago this month.
Long live the president!
However, to place the continued popularity of the royals solely in the realm of contemporary popular culture is to miss a larger historical point, and to misread key chapters of America’s foundation story. Clues are to be found in another smash hit on Broadway, the hip-hop musical Hamilton, which memorialises one of America’s most influential founding fathers. Alexander Hamilton was also a monarchist, who beseeched: “To disclaim the authority of a British parliament over us does by no means imply the dereliction of our allegiance to British monarchs.”
Royalists, like Hamilton, made up a significant cohort of American revolutionaries. Their beef was not with King George III, the sitting monarch at the time, but rather with the Westminster parliament and its punitive taxation laws. Paradoxically, given that the Revolutionary War is conventionally portrayed as a struggle for the rights of man, American patriots repeatedly appealed to the King to use his royal prerogatives to overrule parliament.
Quote: The president of the United States does in reality what the king of Great Britain does only in theory – Eric Nelson
In a case of art reflecting academia, the historian Eric Nelson has just brought out The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding, which tells the story of Hamilton and other “patriot royalists”. Nelson argues that the influence of these royalist revolutionaries helps explain why America ended up with such a powerful president, vested with the constitutional authority to veto bills passed by Congress. As Nelson writes, “the president of the United States does in reality what the king of Great Britain does only in theory. This was the great victory of the Royalist Revolution.”
That, then, is the supreme irony of watching Mike Bartlett’s play on a US stage. Its imagined King Charles III, with his disregard for parliament and belief in the divine right of monarchs, is precisely the kind of ruler that many American patriots wished King George III would have been.
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